Once, when I was very young, I called my grandpa an idiot. Confined to a car seat in the backseat of the car, I was unable to see out the front windshield. As we approached the intersection at Hesperian and Win ton, my mom saw my grandpa in his car across the intersection, so she honked and waved. When I heard the honk, even at my young age, my Pavlovian response was to shout, “Idiot!” This kneejerk aversion to honking has stayed with me, which has made life in Samoa difficult.
Spend ten minutes riding in a car around Apia, and you’ll hear no less than 8 honks; probably more. Taking a taxi across town is a veritable symphony of car horns. Backing out, pulling in, passing, being passed, assuming right of way, acknowledging right of way, saying hi to your cousin walking down the street. I think even if you drive in a straight line at a constant speed in Samoa, it’s customary to honk every two minutes, just for good measure.
In addition to honking frequency, there’s also high value placed on a having an elaborate customized honk. Lately I’ve noticed a lot of drivers around town have installed a new horn that honks once and then echoes that honk over and over and over, slowly fading to silence. There’s also the ever-popular synthesized catcall. I’ve also taken cabs where I didn't realize the weird sound I was hearing was the taxi’s horn until we were nearly at our destination.
And as I’ve mentioned previously in Cultural Exploration, RPCV Cale once had a million-tala idea that involved inventing a car horn that simply sounded like a long kissing noise.
The one time I drove a car on the island, I had a difficult time perfecting the staccato Samoan honking technique. On occasion we do a similar thing in America in which we punch the horn with the side of a fist, but the American style is a little too short. On the other hand, the normal, open-handed American honk is way too long of a tone. I get the impression it’s an acquired skill.
The worst part of Samoan honking, for me, is getting honked at while I’m on my bike. I’ve been told drivers honk at cyclists as a means of making the cyclist aware of the car’s presence. And because the practice is essentially obligatory, riding a bike down the street inevitably means honk after honk after honk after honk from a line of drivers passing.
The sound never fails to grate on my ears, and I sometimes feel an un-diplomatic urge—one which I’ve never acted on, one which might be described as Pavlovian—to yell back at passing cars, “Idiot!”
Tomorrow’s Cultural Exploration: Laughing
I hope you’re well. Pictures will be posted later tonight or tomorrow morning.
6 months ago